Tuesday, August 16, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: U

For those of you just joining us, where have you been? I'm all the way up to the Us in this alphabetical list of my editorial peeves that began back in March.

At any rate, we're getting down to the lesser-used letters of the alphabet now, so the lists are getting noticeably shorter. (You're just dying to see what I'm going to have on the X list, aren't you?!) There are only three items (sort of) in this week's list.


(I'm going to get pounded by a lot of editors for this one.)

Grammar trolls like to pounce on people who use the phrase more unique. Yes, it is true, strictly speaking, that uniqueness is an absolute; something either is unique, or it isn't.

The problem with adhering to such a strict definition of unique is that the word becomes meaningless. Everything is unique in some way. No two things are completely identical; each thing has some characteristic that is unique to it, even if it's only its placement in space.* And because no two things can share every single characteristic, everything is, from a certain metaphysical point of view, unique.

Which makes the idea of unique being an absolute a little pointless.

Look, I'm not calling for wholesale abandonment of the principle that unique shouldn't be qualified, especially when it comes to formal writing. But surely, if we can live in a world where young women can become "a little pregnant" and Westley can be "only mostly dead," surely we can accept the occasional "more unique," at least in informal speech, right? It isn't as if you don't know what the speaker means.

* This stems from the principle of the identity of indiscernibles. Fourteen years later and I'm finally putting those philosophy classes to use.


I really hate this word. Hate it.

It's not that there's anything grammatically wrong with it or that I see people misusing it; there's just something stylistically gaudy about it. I don't like gaudy.

Use is a perfectly good (though somewhat boring) verb. The two extra syllables of utilize are just pointless, like a diamond-studded No. 2 pencil.

I won't go so far as to deny that utilize might, sometimes, possibly maybe be the right word, but it shouldn't be used nearly as often as it currently is. If you find yourself using it, take a closer look. You probably don't want to.

Bill Bryson, in Troublesome Words, says that utilize, in the strictest sense, "means to make the best use of something that wasn't intended for the job." Feel free to use that definition as a guide for your utilize usage. Or just do what I do and avoid the word altogether.

Utilize (Redux)

I hate utilize so much that I'm putting it in this list twice. Really. That much.

And I'm not alone. I've heard tell of copy editors tracking utilize deletions on their cubicle walls like World War II fighter pilots tallying enemy kills.
This copy editor is da bomb!

Though I don't keep tally myself, I do obtain a certain amount of glee from knowing that there is one less utilize in the world.

My only regret is that I've added so many of them with this post.